Monday, February 20, 2017

As Rahul Gandhi drives S.M.Krishna out of Congress, issues of morality, bankruptcy & dilemmas surface

There is a tragic inevitability about the doom of the Congress party. It's a Greek tragedy where the hero's powerful wish to achieve a goal is defeated by a flaw in his character complicated by fate and the will of the gods. Why the will of the gods should go against the Congress, we do not know. For past sins, perhaps. For present sins, the BJP may face similar wrath of the gods in due course. But that can be no consolation for the Congress now.

Rahul Gandhi, as the Congress's Greek hero, revealed the flaw in his character when he stormed into the Delhi Press Club in 2013, declared an ordinance issued by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as "nonsense" and tore up a copy before the cameras. Manmohan Singh took the insult lying down. S.M.Krishna did not. Resenting various humiliations Rahul Gandhi heaped upon him, he gave up the primary membership of the party he had served with distinction for a lifetime.

The fate of the Congress in Karnataka is now sealed. When the state goes to the polls next year, the Congress will perforce hand over its only state in the south to the BJP's Yeddyurappa. On a silver platter. For free.

An elated Yeddyurappa was quick on his feet to exploit the opportunity. He called on Krishna and ensured wide publicity for the meeting. Talk of Krishna joining the BJP filled the air. Krishna inadvertently contributed to the rumours by merely saying that he had not decided about future action. More masala came from Delhi with reports of the Vice President's post being offered to him.

We can see the Greek tragedy entering a three-pronged denouement here, highlighting the moral bankruptcy of the BJP, the political bankruptcy of the Congress and, interestingly, the dilemma of those of our political veterans who still have some experience-enriched wisdom that only they can contribute.

The Congress has made itself so unwanted in Karnataka that the BJP can afford to plan a clean government in the next round and surprise the country to its advantage. But it cannot see beyond Yeddyurappa. That a chief minister who was jailed for corruption is again being projected as the party's leader is a pointer to the BJP's political morality. Other cabinet-level jail birds can now return to power, making a mockery of the BJP leadership's claim that it has freed India from corruption. Is this burlesque or sarcasm? Perhaps it's humour.

The Congress's role as the facilitator of the BJP's return to power in Karnataka underlines its political bankruptcy. Karnataka was the state that rescued Indira Gandhi when the rest of the country rejected her. From that pinnacle of influence, it has fallen to a level where the chief minister's main concern seems to be the installation of his life-size posters at every bus stop. This is burlesque. It's not humour.

The hero's character flaw brought out a problem that's generic to all parties -- the role of their veterans. There are two types of veterans, those who brought shame to the party who should be kept out, and those who earned respect and should therefore be kept in. S.M.Krishna has had his share of mistakes and lapses, but they did not diminish his glamour value in public life. Admired for his patronage of classical music, his social graces and his consideration for colleagues, he is seen as the most cultured leader from the south, with perhaps only Ramakrishna Hegde matching him. Parties must find ways to benefit from such personages.

The BJP sidelined L.K.Advani, but extended all respect to him, enabling him to retain his dignity. The CPM resented V.S.Achuthanandan for his mass appeal, but gave him a position of honour in the government structure. The Congress seems incapable of such gestures. The will of the gods?

The veterans themselves need to approach the problem with equanimity. Joining a rival party out of pique is the worst course to adopt. If, for example, Krishna were to become Vice President courtesy BJP, he will be seen as politically second fiddle to Yeddyurappa and indebted to the Prime Minister -- a fall from the frying pan into the fire.

Krishna's education and standing equip him to popularise in India what is routine for retired American presidents -- give lectures, write books, promote education and research, as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam did with great impact. He has in him more than one book that would add substance to current history.

Power passes. Work of value lives on.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Defying possible peace in Syria, defying Russia, Trump brings the world to the brink of war

Is war coming? America's activities vis a vis Iran lend substance to the scary prospect. Indications began surfacing within days of Donald Trump assuming office. He rubbished the nuclear treaty Obama had worked out with Iran and, instead, described Iran as "the greatest state sponsor of terrorism". Among the first world leaders he phoned were those of Israel and Saudi Arabia, sworn enemies of Iran. Saudi Arabia astounded the world by calling Trump's Muslim ban "a firm and correct decision", a typical argument being that "among 57 Muslim countries of the world only seven were blacklisted". That Iran headed the list was the point.

More ominous developments followed. On January 29, Iran conducted a missile test claiming that it was not in violation of the UN resolution barring ballistic missile tests. America called the Iranian action "unacceptable" and said "we are not going to stand [idly] by". Two days later the US conducted a three-day naval exercise close to Iranian waters. This was followed by a warning. Charging that Iran "continues to threaten US friends and allies in the region", US National Security Advisor declared: "As of today we are officially putting Iran on notice".

Donald Trump is no clown though he provides comic relief now and again with his mannerisms, his grammar-defying language, even his more outrageous executive orders. (When he dismissed his Attorney-General for not supporting his illegal order blocking refugees, satirist Borowitz wrote in the New Yorker magazine that she was fired because a copy of the American Constitution was found in her computer).

For all that, Trump is a shrewd businessman. He is now President of the United States and commander of the world's most powerful military forces. His decisions can make or unmake nations. When such a person announces decisions that seem temperamental and unpredictable, the world has cause to worry.

His moves against Iran are puzzlingly in conflict with several ongoing political-military-diplomatic exercises aimed at achieving peace in Syria and ending ISIS terrorism. America itself has been a participant in many of these operations. In the military putsch that has brought the war to what looks like a possible conclusion, the lead player has been Russia to which Trump is believed to be well disposed. To sound the gongs of war against Iran at such a time is equivalent to encouraging the terrorists who seek to establish a worldwide caliphate. Russia has publicly rejected Trump's moves against Iran, saying it values its "friendly partner-like relations" with Teheran.

Adding to this convoluted mess of crisscrossing policy pursuits is the supreme contradiction of Trump, a White American traditionalist and therefore a hater of Jews, coordinating action with Israel. The belief is that he is trying to consolidate his position by playing to the powerful Jewish lobby in America which controls the US Congress and the US media. This may be good domestic politics, but toeing the Israeli line in the Middle East could lead directly to a showdown no one wants (except Israel which at one point was on the verge of launching a nuclear attack on Iran).

Iran is no longer the weak polity that America needled in the George Bush years. It is recognised today as the most effective force in the battle against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and it is a prime mover, with Russia alongside Turkey, in the efforts to bring normalcy to war-ravaged Syria. No strategy against Islamist terror will be workable without Iranian participation. Nor can peace be sustained in the devastated area without Iran's cooperation.

Trump had asked the Pentagon to prepare within 30 days a blueprint to destroy the ISIS for ever. There is irony in the same Trump boosting ties with Saudi Arabia which has been exporting Wahabi extremism for decades, backed with liberal finance. From extremism to terrorism is not a long haul as shown by ISIS successes in attracting radicalised youth in previously tolerant Islamic societies in South and Southeast Asia. For Saudi Arabia Sunni Wahabi terrorism is acceptable. Should that be Trump's position as well?

Iran will not be an easy target for the US. A top military commander in Teheran said last week that it would take Iranian missiles only seven minutes to pulverise Tel Aviv. For good measure, he added they could also "raze to the ground" the US military base in Bahrain. Part of the boast may be rhetoric, but only the foolish will dismiss such warnings completely.

So, is war coming? As of today Yes seems more likely than No.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How come Jaitley's imaginative budget left a slot for anonymous black money to thrive?

How predictable we are! Come rain or sunshine, we evaluate budgets strictly along party lines. Introduce a dream budget that guarantees benefits for all and, if it is a Congress budget, the BJP will condemn it as anti-people; if it is presented by a BJP Government, the Congress will reject it as worthless. Polarisation is not merely a pseudo-communal element that vitiates our thinking; it is a malignancy that diminishes our value systems just as comprehensively.

The layman, not exposed to the intricacies of high finance or the compulsions of party loyalties, has to separate wheat from chaff on his own. Such exercises will be influenced by critics and supporters alike. "Railway man" E.Sreedharan's criticism of doing away with the railway budget, for example, cannot be lightly dismissed. "It is a foolish decision", he said, stating that the Railway Ministry will now be at the mercy of the Finance Ministry for funds.

Many have welcomed various aspects of the budget such as the allocation of a record Rs 3.96 lakh crore to the infrastructure sector. The financial incentives provided for the promotion of swipe machines and e-transactions are also to be welcomed. (Problems in this sector arise only when the Government insists that all transactions without exception must go through machines and a cashless society must rise overnight. That will not happen until literacy becomes near total and poverty levels less humiliating).

Elimination of political corruption is one topic on which the budget's approach has been half-hearted and overly clever at the same time. A good opportunity to strike at the roots of black money has been missed despite the budget presenting two seemingly decisive reforms. First, it has reduced the individual cash donation limit to Rs 2000 from Rs 20,000. Secondly, it has launched the new idea of electoral bonds which a donor can buy and his favoured party can encash. The first is just a trick, the second is a move that will favour a party in power leaving other parties handicapped.

Bloomberg, the business-news agency, once described black money as "the profits of political corruption, tax evasion and ordinary crime". All three have flourished in India under the patronage of those in power, making black money the fulcrum of all that is cancerous in the country's public life. The Prime Minister launched a crusade against black money while the Finance Minister set out to eliminate it. But the words of both have been belied by action.

Retaining the very idea of anonymous contribution bears this out. Political parties get about 80 percent of their funds from anonymous donors in cash, that is, in black money. The anonymous donors can now give Rs 2,000 per person as against Rs 20,000 per person earlier. This is like closing the main door in front and leaving a small side door open. It will not fool the donors or the political parties, and it is unlikely to fool the public. The lowered limit only means that a party will have to find ten bogus donors where one was enough till now. No problem. Remember the thousands of citizens who competed to garland Mayawati with festoons of currency notes. Unless black-money donations are reduced to zero, there will be no chance of eliminating political corruption.

The electoral bonds idea is a clever one. The good thing about it is that money donated through bonds will be white and subject to accounting checks. But in the nature of things, a bond system favours a party in power over other parties. Citizens in need of services at government offices are vulnerable to pressures. In a system that demands a bribe even to issue a power-of-attorney, it is not difficult for a politically motivated sub-registrar to persuade a citizen to buy a bond. In big infrastructure projects where high-value decisions are taken by ministers and top officials, contract-hungry businesses will be happy to buy bonds. A party that is in power can manage the bond system in ways the powerless cannot.

On top of it all, there are more than a thousand registered political parties which never contest elections, but collect funds, anonymous and otherwise. There is not a word about these "parties" in the Jaitley budget. No wonder that Dr. A.K.Verma, director of the Centre for Study of Society and Politics, said: "Most criminals are now opening parties and getting their gangs registered with the Election Commission as party functionaries".

We are on the way to inventing an altogether new genre -- Anonymous Democracy.

Monday, January 30, 2017

News, when true, wasn't truth. But news that is untrue is taken as truth today. Is anybody safe?

What's happening to news, that precious information source that has kept the world ticking for ages? News has now turned into a weapon of destruction. They have a new name for it, Fake News, used as a term of endearment. Fake news has grown into a phenomenon of evil in the West and has made a sinister splash or two in India as well. Social media, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, is the breeding ground of malicious news spread for malicious ends. Where are we headed?

It was the Trump-Hillary presidential campaign that highlighted the noxious nature of fake news. At one point devices like Instagram and Facebook carried fake stories saying that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-trafficking racket. Naturally online reactions were fierce, some threatening to kill those involved. None of the accusations were true.

The anonymous artistes of the internet had other guns to fire at Hillary -- that she had secretly helped sell weapons to the ISIS terrorists, that she was involved in the 1999 plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Junior. Donald Trump himself promoted the idea that Barack Obama was not born in America. One fake story against Trump got traction when a private citizen tweeted that he saw paid protestors being sent in buses to demonstrate against Trump. There were no paid protestors.

By comparison, the fake news menace is not in full bloom in India. Or is it that we are not agitated enough because we haven't yet faced the ruinous consequences of lies masquerading as news? We came pretty close to it, though, when the JNU campus erupted with reverberations of anti-national cry. As it turned out, the video showing student union leaders shouting pro-Pakistan slogans was a doctored video.This fake news was broadcast by a national channel as well. Naturally, anger welled up against the student leaders. By the time the doctored nature of the video was established, student leaders had already been slapped with sedition charges and some of them manhandled by partisan lawyers.

Some cases of fake news in India were rather comical in nature and obvious offshoots of the political project to project the Prime Minister as a heroic figure. In June last year reports appeared in India saying that the UNESCO had declared Narendra Modi as the best Prime Minister in the world. Claims of a similar nature followed -- that the UNESCO declared Jana Gana Mana as the best national anthem in the world and the new 2000-rupee note as the best currency in the world.

The ludicrous nature of the claims made them counterproductive. More sinister were reports that spread, within hours of the currency demonetisation announcement, that the new 2000-rupee notes had nano-GPS chips and radioactive ink embedded in them, enabling satellites to track accumulation of the notes anywhere in the world. A Hindi news channel even showed a video on the hightech nature of the notes. There was a degree of fear across the country because 300 to 400 million Indians are exposed to WhatsApp and other online instrumentalities through which information, especially false information, spreads fast and free.

In advanced countries there is an awareness of the dangers of this online menace. In Germany, preparing for general election this year, a special government department is being planned to fight fake news. In UK, parliamentarians are asking for measures that will prevent politics from getting "infected by the contagion". Cambridge University scientists are working on the idea of "pre-emptively" exposing readers to small doses of misinformation so as to "provide a cognitive repertoire that helps build up resistance" to real-life fake news, a kind of psychological vaccination.

No such remedial measures are contemplated in India because we seem to be unconcerned about the social, political and moral issues involved. That national channels are willing to broadcast provocative visuals without checking their authenticity is indicative of our easygoing approach to the menace.

Will that approach change only if a catastrophe strikes? Advance signals of possible disasters have already come. News of salt shortage swept across India last November causing panic everywhere. There were fights in front of shops; in Kanpur police lathicharged people who robbed shops. In 2012 communally-inspired text messages warned of attacks against Northeasterners in Bengaluru during Ramzan. Overnight panic-stricken Northeasterners began an exodus from Bengaluru causing massive labour crisis in the city.

The wise used to say: News may be true, but it is not truth. Today news that is untrue is taken as truth -- Kaliyuga at its zenith.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Those who do not think of other people's opinions live in bubbles. Was Obama talking of India?

If sloganeering characterised President Donald Trump's inaugural address, sagacity marked Barack Obama's farewell address a week earlier. Undoubtedly, it is the Obama pitch that will reverberate in the chambers of history.Uncannily, Uncannily, Obama's words seemed directed at India though they were meant for the United States. His theme was rather platitudinous -- the responsibilities of democracy. But isn't wisdom ultimately a pack of well-minted platitudes? Like, "do unto others as you'd have others do unto you". Like, "the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth".

Abraham Lincoln is said to have composed the Gettysburg Address while travelling by train to the venue. The speech was so short that it took barely three minutes to deliver, but it has remained the unalterable motto of a "nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal".

On par with Lincoln's quotability was John Kennedy's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country". Kennedy lived in an age when the President had teams of speech writers at his disposal. Even so, he worked on that speech for two whole months. We have no way of knowing how long it took Jawaharlal Nehru to write his Tryst With Destiny speech delivered at midnight on August 14, 1947. He certainly had no ghosts to help him. Yet the wondrous ring of those phrases still works its magic as we read, "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance".

Obama is in a different class, more intellectual and naturally more pre-occupied with the entangled challenges of our times -- the rise of old-fashioned orthodoxies, the populist rejection of a globalised world, the emergence of nationalism as an emotive force.

Hence his repeated references to the dangers of taking democracy for granted. Democracy requires perpetual participation, he said. Indifference to democracy is betrayal of democracy. Citizenship must be continuously reinvented in a functioning democracy. He was of course referring to the shadows cast upon democracy by Donald Trump's philosophy of protecting the white middleclass American from immigrants. But we can see the parallelism between that philosophy and the narrow nationalism that has gained ground elsewhere in the world, too, including India.

When Obama cautions his audience to be wary of forces that "weaken the sacred ties that make us one", he is giving expression to truisms that are as important for India as for any other nation. When he says that the country's potential will be realised "only if our politics reflects the decency of our people", we know he might just as well be referring to India.

He elevated the whole issue to a lofty level where minds are challenged to go into overdrive. Politics, he said, is a battle of ideas but, he hastened to add, "ideas that explore differences on the basis of reason. We should be reasonable enough to concede that the opponent may have a valid point". He was saying in effect that the foundation upon which democracy rested was debate. To what extent is debate practised -- or indeed allowed -- in today's India? How far do we explore differences on the basis of reason?

The way intolerance has become a term of everyday currency contains the answers to such questions. The BJP's enthronement in power has emboldened the party's riffraff to pose as protectors of the nation, with a monopoly of the right to talk about its civilisational status. Dissension is not acceptable. Even criticism of a government policy such as demonetisation is enough to tar responsible citizens with the anti-national brush.

Like all extremists in history, the Hindutva extremists will have their fifteen minutes of glory and then collapse. They will be cast aside by their own ludicrous positions. A case in point was the recent denunciation of Yashwant Sinha, a distinguished BJP leader, just because a committee he headed recommended talks with Kashmiri separatists. The Hindutva forces are open to no suggestions outside the communal calendar they follow, a familiar problem of closed minds.

Obama no doubt had such self-defeating partisans in mind when he said, "we have become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinion".

Fortunately bubbles burst. Unfortunately some bubbles swallow up a generation before they burst. But burst they will.